To aid their determinations in child custody proceedings, Georgia courts at times utilize assessments of parents or their children by mental health professionals. Those assessments are denominated either as “psychological custody evaluations,” “parental fitness evaluations,” or “mental examinations.” Although courts have used those terms interchangeably at times, each of the assessments actually arises from different underpinning legal authority; and each type of assessment has somewhat different focuses and components. A prior article has already explored the legal authority for and use of psychological custody evaluations. In this article, we discuss parental fitness evaluations. A future article will address mental examinations as well.
Oddly, no Georgia statute or court rule explicitly authorizes a “parental fitness evaluation” in child custody proceedings. At one time, but no longer, the statute which allows a child, who has reached the age of 14 years, to select the parent with whom he or she desires to live, honored the child’s choice unless the parent so selected was determined “not to be a fit and proper person to have the custody of the child.”(1) Current statutory law also designates factors for loss of parental power, and for determination of a child’s best interests in custody disputes, which appear to fall within the ambit of parental fitness; yet those statutes neither contain the term “parental fitness” nor expressly authorize “parental fitness evaluations” to assist a court in making determinations regarding their designated factors.(2)
Despite the absence of explicit authority, Georgia’s appellate courts have seemingly taken for granted that trial courts may utilize parental fitness evaluations in child custody proceedings. Indeed, no published appellate decision to date has held that trial courts lack authority to order them.
Although sometimes used by superior court judges in custody proceedings, parental fitness evaluations seem most commonly employed by juvenile court judges in termination of parental rights or dependency cases. The assessment performed in those cases may include an in-person interview of a parent as well as screening tests.(3) The interview of the parent can address, among other factors, that parent’s a) history of sexual and physical abuse, both as victim and perpetrator, b) prior and current use of illegal substances and alcohol, and c) mental health symptoms, conditions and diagnoses for which the parent has or has not received treatment.(4) Additionally, the screening tests may seek to identify emotional/psychological problems with children and self that may indicate the parent’s potential for child abuse or neglect.(5)
A broader form of parental fitness evaluation may include “interviews with parents and children, psychological testing, observations, review of records (health, academic, etc.), and interviewing collateral contacts such as teachers, daycare providers or family physicians.”(6) Through those steps, the psychologist/psychiatrist seeks to address the particular psychological and developmental needs of the child and/or parent that are relevant to child protection issues, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and emotional harm.(7) The evaluation focuses heavily on an in-depth analysis of a parent’s psychological functioning and ability to act as a parent, with the goal of rendering an opinion in furtherance of a child’s best interests.(8) As the name of the evaluation implies, the practitioner ultimately opines whether the parent is unfit to care for the child without supervision, outside assistance, or treatment.(9)
(1) Former O.C.G.A. § 19-9-3(a)(4) (2006 Georgia Code). (2) See O.C.G.A. § 15-11-310(a)(2), (4), and (5); O.C.G.A. § 15-11-311(a); O.C.G.A. § 19-7-1(b)(3) and (6); O.C.G.A. § 19-9-3(a)(3)(C), (D), (E), (F), (H), (I), (J), (M), (P), and (Q). (3) In re T.S., 820 S.E.2d 773, 776 (Ga. Ct. App., 2018). (4) Id. (5) Id. (6) See Forensic Parent Fitness Evaluation, http://atlantabehavioralconsultants.com/evaluations/forensic-parent-fitness-evaluation/. See also Todd v. Casciano, 256 Ga. App. 631, 634, 569 S.E.2d 566 (2002). (7) Id. (8) Id. (9) See, e.g., In re Interest of B.R.F., 332 Ga.App. 49, 59-60, 770 S.E.2d 912 (2015); In the Interest of J.H., a Child., 310 Ga.App. 401, 402, 713 S.E.2d 472 (2011); and In re S.N.H., 300 Ga. App. 321, 685 S.E.2d 290, 294 (2009).